Today's Hawks Are Tearing the Right Apart

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Though perfectly suited to the Cold War, the conservative coalition is an uneasy fit for the War on Terror

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In the glory days of conservatism, President Reagan held the White House, the Cold War dominated American foreign policy, and the nature of that conflict made it especially easy for the right to maintain a broad coalition. National security conservatives insisted that beating communism was priority number one. The enemy was aggressively Godless, and thus anathema to religious conservatives. And economic conservatives knew the reds were out to destroy capitalism.

When the War on Terror began, it looked as if the enemy might reunite the right, especially after President Bush won re-election in 2004. As it enters its second decade, however, it looks increasingly likely that this war is going to trigger disunity among conservatives, libertarians, and right-leaning independents. The Global War on Terror, as it has been called, turns out to offer far less common ground for "national security conservatives" and everyone else on the right.

So far, foreign wars are the biggest fissures. Many conservatives now regard Iraq to be a "mistake," as Jonah Goldberg declared it back in 2006. There's also a faction insisting that Afghanistan should've involved routing the Taliban, killing jihadists, and getting the hell out. In 2010, Ann Coulter insisted that it was "Obama's war," and that Democrats are bent on staying there.

In reality, the right would be deeply divided about pulling out of Afghanistan tomorrow. And in Libya, a conflict that President Obama did initiate, conservatives are divided over whether he should be forced to pull out. In Congress, 87 Republicans joined an effort by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to impose a withdrawal deadline, including Tea Party stalwart Michelle Bachmann. "She will start her campaign to become Commander in Chief by running to the left of President Obama and Nancy Pelosi," the Wall Street Journal editorialized. It neglected to mention that an allegedly humanitarian war in a country that doesn't threaten our national security can plausibly be labeled a left-leaning action.

Still other War on Terror divides are evident on the home front. President Bush's attempts at immigration reform would've been controversial regardless, but the idea that jihadists might sneak across the border intensified conservative opposition. Thanks in part to Tea Party candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the PATRIOT Act no longer enjoys undiluted Republican support in Congress. And as some national security conservatives defend TSA screening efforts, those efforts are stoking outrage among others. In the Texas state legislature, for example, the House passed legislation intended to stop TSA agents from performing intrusive pat-downs on air passengers.

The War on Terror will inspire more intra-right arguments the longer it drags on. Should President Obama win another term, more conservatives will challenge his expansive conception of executive authority, putting them at odds with Dick Cheney, John Yoo, and Jay Bybee. Economic conservatives are less willing than their Cold War counterparts to spend lots of money waging foreign wars against an enemy that doesn't credibly threaten the worldwide domination of capitalism. Immigration and its national security implications are certain to come up again too.

Thanks to the First Amendment, and the fact that Muslim Americans are well integrated, we haven't had a controversy like the one surrounding the head scarf ban in France. There is nevertheless tension between religious liberty as championed by some social conservatives and libertarians, and a desire among others on the right to pass bills against sharia law or mosque construction near Ground Zero. Imagine how the school voucher coalition would change if devout Muslims used public funds to open institutions where students memorized the Koran.

Finally, there is inescapable tension between national security hawks who want federal law enforcement empowered to spy on Americans, and right-leaning civil libertarians, who value personal privacy, mistrust big government, and fear its abuses. An early example of this conflict concerns whether the FBI should have access to records detailing which Americans own guns. More broadly, civil liberties are especially likely to be implicated when a war is being fought against individuals who are mostly indistinguishable from the civilian population until they act.

The right understandably regards President Reagan's tenure as the height of its success, and believes his coalition remains the best way forward. But success during the Reagan years cannot be separated from the Cold War and the foreign policy that sprang from it. The challenges America faces in this era are very different. And if the right is to succeed again as spectacularly as it did during the 1980s, it is going to require a coalition built around today's realities. 


Image credit: Flickr user Matt Brittaine

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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